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March 22, 2016

Apple vs. FBI

FBI Losing Public Battle Over Unlocking Apple iPhone

As the FBI signals it may try to avert a court showdown with Apple over whether the tech company should be required to help unlock the iPhone of a shooter who killed 14 people in the San Bernardino attack, a new survey indicates that Apple is winning the fierce public battle.

According to a Vrge Analytics survey of 657 people, more Americans believe that Apple has made a more compelling case that it shouldn’t be required to help unlock the phone to determine if the shooter was tied to extremist Islamic groups.

“The debate over privacy versus national security is likely to persist for years, and the FBI cannot afford to lose the first round, either in the federal courts or in the court of public opinion.”

According to the survey, 42 percent of Americans said Apple had made the more compelling case while only 30 percent said that the FBI had done so. 19 percent said they hadn’t made up their mind while 9 percent were not sure.

There was other troubling news for the FBI.

The Vrge Analytics survey found that support for the FBI has eroded in the last month since the controversy sparked a fierce debate over what should take priority – national security needs or the right to privacy:

  • A month ago, Vrge found that 50 percent of Americans believed that Apple should be required to
    help unlock the iPhone. That support has now slipped to 41 percent.
  • A month ago, by a 41 percent-33 percent margin, Americans said they would trust the FBI with their own personal information. But in the follow-up poll, which was in the field March 19-20, more Americans (41 percent-37 percent) now report that they would not trust the FBI to handle their personal information in a responsible manner and not use it to harm them.
  • Americans also seemed to reverse their opinion on whether they would want Apple to help unlock their own iPhone if asked by the FBI.
  • By a 44 percent-38 percent margin, Americans now say they would want Apple to refuse to do so. Just a month ago, Americans (by a 46 percent-40 percent margin) said that they would want Apple to do as the FBI asked.

“Taken all together, this data may offer clues into why the FBI is suddenly trying to ratchet down the controversy and avert a court showdown with Apple,” said Tom Galvin, partner at Vrge Strategies. “The debate over privacy versus national security is likely to persist for years, and the FBI cannot afford to lose the first round, either in the federal courts or in the court of public opinion.”

Tellingly, the vast majority of Americans are clinging to the notion that privacy is an important principle – even in a digital era often defined by data breaches and unease over how easy the government and large tech companies can peek into private lives.

Two-thirds of Americans, 67 percent, said, “Of course we should still have an expectation of privacy, technology doesn’t change that.” That was the one polling statistic that was consistent from the February and March Vrge surveys.

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